Students are back in school, but district leaders in many states are struggling with how to get them there. In Colorado, a shortage of bus drivers, along with chronic absenteeism, has strained school transportation systems from the Front Range to the Western Slope, and many of the state’s 178 school districts are nearing crisis point.
It’s a staffing nightmare. For example, as recently as mid-July, there was the Jefferson County Public School System fighting hire sufficient bus drivers for the start of the 2022-23 school year. Last year, the district reported that an average of 29 of its 229 routes remained unfilled each day despite being filled by other employees. Osceola School District is conducted job fair in July, hoping to hire drivers for the 35 bus routes that went unfilled last year.
Some districts have ordered families to be prepared to drive their children to school on their own, an especially difficult decision given rising gas prices and the long distances people living in rural areas will have to drive.
If our student transport system seems antiquated, that’s because it is. While K-12 education has changed over the past decade—especially the past two years—getting kids into school is not one of them.
At the beginning of each year, districts establish bus routes that remain fixed in time and space for the next nine months, with each bus running like clockwork regardless of the weather, traffic or global health crisis. These bus routes operate with no margin for error — otherwise they risk delivering 40 to 50 students to school after the first call.
That’s why drivers can’t accommodate even the slightest change in schedule — say, picking up a student who moved to an emergency home over the weekend that’s off the regular route. But even if the logistics for such a trip were possible, using one bus to pick up one student is not a good use of taxpayer money. Thus, the district is forced to choose between two untenable decisions: allowing the student to miss a day of school or wasting valuable resources by sending an empty bus to pick him or her up.
After 30 years as a teacher, principal, superintendent and educational leader in more than one state, I am convinced that students need smarter and more flexible transportation options.
It is time for districts to look for solutions to this growing problem.
Why is this so important? First, there is a link between reliable transportation to school and academic achievement, which raises troubling equity questions. 2017 year the report from the Urban Institute looked at student transportation in cities across the country. It found that “travel to and from school has an impact[s] the student’s ability to arrive at school on time, the number of absences and the opportunity to participate in pre- and extra-curricular activities.’
Consider the academic impact on students whose routes were temporarily canceled last year due to driver shortages. Families in economically disadvantaged communities may not have access to a car or enough money to pay for a ride-sharing service. Many of these kids had no choice but to skip school because of… what? per day? A week? At least until the district finds replacement drivers. And this problem is not new; As a former interim superintendent of Denver Public Schools, I faced these transportation challenges years ago.
What if districts included more innovative solutions in their transportation plans each year? These services exist and have the technology, flexibility, and security measures to quickly adapt to student needs. There are already successful examples in practice in some areas of Colorado. Services like HopSkipDrive can accommodate students who are not optimally served by a school bus by helping school districts reserve buses and bus drivers for fully utilized bus routes. The best providers can adapt to the needs of students, helping to address the weaknesses of a bus-only system.
This type of service can ensure that children who are homeless, in foster care, or with special needs receive the federal transportation they need without disruption to their routing. This can help districts focus on children who consistently miss out on specialized transportation to support their participation in school. This can open up more equitable opportunities for students to enroll in magnet programs or enroll in college courses early. Many of these programs require off-site travel and have historically been closed to students who do not have their own transportation.
Districts also have other options at their disposal, including providing stipends to public transportation services, allowing rural teachers to drive their own students, and creating financial incentives to hire and retain more bus drivers.
The old inflexible bus-only system is broken. State and district leaders should be open to considering alternative ways to support students whose unique situations fall outside traditional school bus routes. This is the only way to ensure that every student, regardless of socioeconomic status, will be able to come to school every day.